Mental Health - A Male Perspective

Tue 4th Sep 2018 – by EMLA Director, Paul O’Neill

World Suicide Prevention Day is celebrated every year on 10th September and with the highest suicide rate in the UK, men aged 40–44 are most susceptible (Samaritans, 2017). EMLA Director, Paul O’Neill has more than 20 years’ experience of working in, leading and managing mental health services and here shares his thoughts on male mental health…

It’s tough being a bloke sometimes.And I write that from the privileged position of being a middle-aged white bloke, and occupying a professional position which is interesting and influential; so what’s so tough?

There are forces at work; some obvious, some covert, some unconscious, some well-meaning but damaging. Some are intentionally applied to make other groups or individuals feel bad and behave in certain ways to conform, have less opportunity and remain ‘in their place’.

I think we understand the disadvantages women have in the workplace and in society more generally. If they have children they are likely to have had some time off on maternity leave or perhaps an even longer career break to bring up young children, frequently returning to part-time work. They often then then feel they have lost out on career advancement and if they have gone part-time feel some of the higher level roles they perhaps aspired to are now out of reach, seemingly too difficult to accomplish in less hours, (in truth more likely a failure of their employer to consider more creative ways senior roles could be designed or shared).

The corollary of all of this is also true. The same forces are at work that play out on male roles in society. Men tend not to have any significant amounts of time off when their children are born and don’t take career breaks to dedicate to child rearing. I suggest they can miss out on the life altering and perspective changing experience the role of bringing up children in ‘close-quarters’ can have. They tend to work longer hours, work for more years, feel pressured or obliged to take on more senior (and demanding) roles, and find themselves at times surrounded by other men ‘in-charge’ where macho cultures can breed and become the norm. Ultimately, they die younger too.

Men are encouraged to lead, to be in control, to ‘take charge of the situation’, to ‘man-up’, to ‘grow a pair’ to be logical and not emotional. Showing their feelings and vulnerability is seen as a sign of weakness and not coping. What do these pressures do to men in our society?

If you Google male mental health and look at the first few pages of search results, the vast majority of articles are about men not speaking up or opening up emotionally, because at the moment they just don’t. They suffer in silence, find it hard to have the emotional language to talk about how they really feel and tend not to seek help, or at least not until it is too late. Men are three times more likely to kill themselves- about 5,000 men took their own lives last year in the UK (and about 1,600 women).

So what can we do? There are no easy answers but as leaders in the health service we can make a contribution. Paying attention to the language we use, ‘John, what do you feel about that?’ rather than ‘What do you think John?’ opens up a whole other line of emotionally based debate.. The one-to-ones and appraisals we carry out should always include a genuine interest in how things are going for our staff personally as well as professionally. We shouldn’t dig and pry where we are not welcome but being genuinely concerned about how our colleagues are coping with life not just work tasks is part of being a leader too.

We need to look after ourselves not just because it’s good role modelling but because we should, ‘Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping,’ (as Jordan B Peterson writes in his book 12 Rules for Life - An Antidote to Chaos.)

Making emotional language and information part of our daily discourse, showing care for each other, challenging unhelpful macho cultures in the long run isn’t just better for men but for all. It’s down to all of us to better figure out what are the forces at play that exaggerate difference and perpetuate disadvantage and do something to change it.

It’s got to become ok to feel sad, anxious, overwhelmed and scared - we all feel these emotions - they are part of being alive, but we, and men in particular, don’t always talk about them to find better ways of coping with them or seek help when we need it. So speak up! It can be difficult, and unfamiliar, start small with those you trust and push yourself a little more to share how you are feeling about work, life and everything.

I want a better workplace and society for all of us- don’t you?